Kaz followed East Stave towards the harbour, through the beginnings of the Barrel’s gambling district. The Barrel was bracketed by two major canals, East Stave and West Stave, each catering to a particular clientele, and separated by a tangle of narrow streets and minor waterways. The buildings of the Barrel were different from anywhere else in Ketterdam, bigger, wider, painted in every garish colour, clamouring for attention from passersby – the Treasure Chest, the Golden Bend, Weddell’s Riverboat. The best of the betting halls were located further north, in the prime real estate of the Lid, the section of the canal closest to the harbours, favourably situated to attract tourists and sailors coming into port.
But not the Crow Club, Kaz mused as he looked up at the black-and-crimson façade. It had taken a lot to lure tourists and risk-hungry merchers this far south for entertainment. Now the hour was coming up on four bells, and the crowds were still thick outside the club. Kaz watched the tide of people flowing past the portico’s black columns, beneath the watchful eye of the oxidised silver crow that spread its wings above the entrance. Bless the pigeons, he thought. Bless all you kind and generous folk ready to empty your wallets into the Dregs’ coffers and call it a good time.
He could see barkers out front shouting to potential customers, offering free drinks, hot pots of coffee, and the fairest deal in all of
Ketterdam. He acknowledged them with a nod and pressed further north. Only one other gambling den on the Stave mattered to him: the Emerald Palace, Pekka Rollins’ pride and joy. The building was an ugly green, decked out in artificial trees laden with fake gold and silver coins. The whole place had been done up as some kind of tribute to Rollins’ Kaelish heritage and his gang, the Dime Lions. Even the girls working the chip counters and tables wore glittering green sheaths of silk and had their hair tinted a dark, unnatural red to mimic the look of girls from the Wandering Isle. As Kaz passed the Emerald, he looked up at the false gold coins, letting the anger come at him. He needed it tonight as a reminder of what he’d lost, of what he stood to gain. He needed it to
prepare him for this reckless endeavour.
“Brick by brick,” he muttered to himself. They were the only words that kept his rage in check, that prevented him from striding through the Emerald’s garish gold-and-green doors, demanding a private audience with Rollins, and slitting his throat. Brick by brick. It was the promise that let him sleep at night, that drove him every day, that kept Jordie’s ghost at bay. Because a quick death was too good for Pekka Rollins.
Kaz watched the flow of customers in and out of the Emerald’s doors and caught a glimpse of his own steerers, men and women he hired to seduce Pekka’s customers south with the prospect of better deals, bigger wins, prettier girls.
“Where are you coming from, looking so flush?” one said to the other, talking far more loudly than necessary.
“Just got back from the Crow Club. Took one hundred kruge off the house in just two hours.”
“You don’t say!”
“I do! Just came up the Stave to get a beer and meet a friend. Why don’t you join us, and we’ll all go together?”
“The Crow Club! Who would have thought it?”
“Come on, I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll buy everyone a drink!”
And they walked off together laughing, leaving all the patrons around them to wonder if maybe they ought to head just a few bridges down the canal and see if the odds weren’t kinder there – Kaz’s servant, greed, luring them south like a piper with flute in hand.
He made sure to cycle steerers in and out, changing the faces so Pekka’s barkers and bouncers never got wise, and customer by customer, he leeched away the Emerald’s business. It was one of the infinite tiny
ways he’d found to make himself strong at Pekka’s expense –intercepting his shipments of jurda, charging him fees for access to Fifth Harbour, undercutting his rents to keep his properties free of tenants, and slowly, slowly tugging at the threads that made up his life.
Despite the lies he’d spread and the claims he’d made to Geels tonight, Kaz wasn’t a bastard. He wasn’t even from Ketterdam. He’d been nine and Jordie thirteen when they’d first arrived in the city, a cheque from the sale of their father’s farm sewn safely into the inner pocket of Jordie’s old coat. Kaz could see himself as he was then, walking the Stave with dazzled eyes, hand tucked into Jordie’s so he wouldn’t be swept away by the crowd. He hated the boys they’d been, two stupid pigeons waiting to be plucked. But those boys were long gone, and only Pekka Rollins was left to punish.
One day Rollins would come to Kaz on his knees, begging for help. If Kaz managed this job for Van Eck, that day would come much sooner than he ever could have hoped. Brick by brick, I will destroy you.
But if Kaz had any hope of getting into the Ice Court, he needed the right crew, and the next hour’s business would bring him a step closer to securing two very vital pieces of the puzzle.
He turned onto a walkway bordering one of the smaller canals. The tourists and merchers liked to keep to well-lit thoroughfares, so the foot traffic here was sparser, and he made better time. Soon, the lights and music of West Stave came into view, the canal choked with men and women of every class and country seeking diversion.
Music floated out of parlours where the doors had been flung open, and men and women lounged on couches in little more than scraps of silk and gaudy baubles. Acrobats dangled from cords over the canal, lithe bodies garbed in nothing but glitter, while street performers played their fiddles, hoping to garner a coin or two from passersby. Hawkers shouted at the sleek private gondels of rich merchers in the canal and the larger browboats that brought tourists and sailors inland from the Lid.
A lot of tourists never entered the brothels of West Stave. They just came to watch the crowd, which was a sight in itself. Many people chose to visit this part of the Barrel in disguise – in veils or masks or capes with nothing but the glint of their eyes visible. They bought their costumes in one of the speciality shops off the main canals, and sometimes disappeared from their companions for a day or a week, or however long their funds held out. They dressed as Mister Crimson or
the Lost Bride, or wore the grotesque, goggle-eyed mask of the Madman – all characters from the Komedie Brute. And then there were the Jackals, a group of rowdy men and boys who cavorted through the Barrel in the red lacquered masks of Suli ‘fortune-tellers’.
Kaz remembered when Inej had first seen the jackal masks in a shop window. She hadn’t been able to contain her contempt. “Real Suli fortune-tellers are rare. They’re holy men and women. These masks that are handed around like party favours are sacred symbols.”
“I’ve seen Suli tellers ply their trade in caravans and pleasure ships, Inej. They didn’t seem so very holy.”
“They are pretenders. Making themselves clowns for you and your ilk.”
“My ilk?” Kaz had laughed.
She’d waved her hand in disgust. “Shevrati,” she’d said. “Know-nothings. They’re laughing at you behind those masks.”
“Not at me, Inej. I’d never lay down good coin to be told my future by anyone – fraud or holy man.”
“Fate has plans for us all, Kaz.”
“Was it fate that took you from your family and stuck you in a pleasure house in Ketterdam? Or was it just very bad luck?”
“I’m not sure yet,” she’d said coldly.
In moments like that, he thought she might hate him.
Kaz wove his way through the crowd, a shadow in a riot of colour. Each of the major pleasure houses had a speciality, some more obvious than others. He passed the Blue Iris, the Bandycat, bearded men glowering from the windows of the Forge, the Obscura, the Willow Switch, the dewy-eyed blondes at the House of Snow, and of course the Menagerie, also known as the House of Exotics, where Inej had been forced to don fake Suli silks. He spotted Tante Heleen in her peacock feathers and famous diamond choker holding court in the gilded parlour. She ran the Menagerie, procured the girls, made sure they behaved. When she saw Kaz, her lips thinned to a sour line, and she lifted her glass, the gesture more threat than toast. He ignored her and pressed on.
The House of the White Rose was one of the more luxurious establishments on West Stave. It had its own dock, and its gleaming white stone façade looked less like a pleasure house than a mercher mansion. Its window boxes were always bursting with climbing white
roses, and their scent clung dense and sweet over this portion of the canal.
The parlour was even stickier with perfume. Huge alabaster vases overflowed with more white roses, and men and women – some masked or veiled, some with faces bare – waited on ivory couches, sipping near-colourless wine and nibbling little vanilla cakes soaked in almond liqueur.
The boy at the desk was dressed in a creamy velvet suit, a white rose in his buttonhole. He had white hair and eyes the colour of boiled eggs. Barring the eyes, he looked like an albino, but Kaz happened to know that he’d been tailored to match the decor of the House by a certain Grisha on the payroll.
“Mister Brekker,” the boy said, “Nina is with a client.”
Kaz nodded and slipped down a hallway behind a potted rose tree, resisting the urge to bury his nose in his collar. Onkle Felix, the bawd who ran the White Rose, liked to say that his house girls were as sweet as his blossoms. But the joke was on the clients. That particular breed of white rose, the only one hardy enough to survive the wet weather of Ketterdam, had no natural scent. All the flowers were perfumed by hand. Kaz trailed his fingers along the panels behind the potted tree and pressed his thumb into a notch in the wall. It slid open, and he climbed a
corkscrew staircase that was only used by staff.
Nina’s room was on the third floor. The door to the bedroom beside it was open and the room unoccupied, so Kaz slipped in, moved aside a still life, and pressed his face to the wall. The peepholes were a feature of all the brothels. They were a way to keep employees safe and honest, and they offered a thrill to anyone who enjoyed watching others take their pleasure. Kaz had seen enough slum dwellers seeking satisfaction in dark corners and alleys that the allure was lost on him. Besides, he knew that anyone looking through this particular peephole and hoping for excitement would be sorely disappointed.
A little bald man was seated fully clothed at a round table draped in ivory baize, his hands neatly folded beside an untouched silver coffee tray. Nina Zenik stood behind him, swathed in the red silk kefta that advertised her status as a Grisha Heartrender, one palm pressed to his forehead, the other to the back of his neck. She was tall and built like the figurehead of a ship carved by a generous hand. They were silent, as if
they’d been frozen there at the table. There wasn’t even a bed in the room, just a narrow settee where Nina curled up every night.
When Kaz had asked Nina why, she’d simply said, “I don’t want anyone getting ideas.”
“A man doesn’t need a bed to get ideas, Nina.”
Nina fluttered her lashes. “What would you know about it, Kaz? Take those gloves off, and we’ll see what ideas come to mind.”
Kaz had kept his cool eyes on her until she’d dropped her gaze. He wasn’t interested in flirting with Nina Zenik, and he happened to know she wasn’t remotely interested in him. Nina just liked to flirt with everything. He’d once seen her make eyes at a pair of shoes she fancied in a shop window.
Nina and the bald man sat, unspeaking, as the minutes ticked by, and when the hour on the clock chimed, he rose and kissed her hand.
“Go,” she said in solemn tones. “Be at peace.”
The bald man kissed her hand again, tears in his eyes. “Thank you.”
As soon as the client was down the hall, Kaz stepped out of the bedroom and knocked on Nina’s door.
She opened it cautiously, keeping the chain latched. “Oh,” she said when she saw Kaz. “You.”
She didn’t look particularly happy to see him. No surprise. Kaz Brekker at your door was rarely a good thing. She unhooked the chain and let him show himself in as she shucked off the red kefta, revealing a slip of satin so thin it barely counted as cloth.
“Saints, I hate this thing,” she said, kicking the kefta away and pulling a threadbare dressing gown from a drawer.
“What’s wrong with it?” Kaz asked.
“It isn’t made right. And it itches.” The kefta was of Kerch manufacture, not Ravkan – a costume, not a uniform. Kaz knew Nina never wore it on the streets; it was simply too risky for Grisha. Her membership in the Dregs meant anyone acting against her would risk retribution from the gang, but payback wouldn’t matter much to Nina if she was on a slaver ship bound for who knew where.
Nina threw herself into a chair at the table and wriggled her feet out of her jewelled slippers, digging her toes into the plush white carpet. “Ahhh,” she said contentedly. “So much better.” She shoved one of the cakes from the coffee service into her mouth and mumbled, “What do you want, Kaz?”
“You have crumbs on your cleavage.”
“Don’t care,” she said, taking another bite of cake. “So hungry.”
Kaz shook his head, amused and impressed at how quickly Nina dropped the wise Grisha priestess act. She’d missed her true calling on the stage. “Was that Van Aakster, the merch?” Kaz asked.
“His wife died a month ago, and his business has been a wreck since.
Now that he’s visiting you, can we expect a turnaround?”
Nina didn’t need a bed because she specialised in emotions. She dealt in joy, calm, confidence. Most Grisha Corporalki focused on the body –to kill or to cure – but Nina had needed a job that would keep her in Ketterdam and out of trouble. So instead of risking her life and making major money as a mercenary, she slowed heartbeats, eased breathing, relaxed muscles. She had a lucrative side business as a Tailor, seeing to the wrinkles and jowls of the wealthy Kerch, but her chief source of income came from altering moods. People came to her lonely, grieving, sad for no reason, and left buoyed, their anxieties eased. The effect didn’t last long, but sometimes just the illusion of happiness was enough to make her clients feel like they could face another day. Nina claimed it had something to do with glands, but Kaz didn’t care about the specifics as long as she showed up when he needed her and she paid Per Haskell his percentage on time.
“I expect you’ll see a change,” Nina said. She finished off the last cake, licking her fingers with relish, then set the tray outside the door and rang for a maid. “Van Aakster started coming at the end of last week and has been here every day since.”
“Excellent.” Kaz made a mental note to buy up some of the low stock in Van Aakster’s company. Even if the man’s mood shift was the result of Nina’s handiwork, business would pick up. He hesitated then said, “You make him feel better, ease his woe and all that … but could you compel him to do something? Maybe make him forget his wife?”
“Alter the pathways in his mind? Don’t be absurd.”
“The brain is just another organ,” Kaz said, quoting Van Eck.
“Yes, but it’s an incredibly complex one. Controlling or altering another person’s thoughts … well, it’s not like lowering a pulse rate or releasing a chemical to improve someone’s mood. There are too many variables. No Grisha is capable of it.”
Yet, Kaz amended. “So you treat the symptom, not the cause.”
She shrugged. “He’s avoiding the grief, not treating it. If I’m his solution, he’ll never really get over her death.”
“Will you send him on his way then? Advise him to find a new wife and stop darkening your door?”
She ran a brush through her light brown hair and glanced at him in the mirror. “Does Per Haskell have plans to forgive my debt?”
“None at all.”
“Well then Van Aakster must be allowed to grieve in his own way. I have another client scheduled in a half hour, Kaz. What business?”
“Your client will wait. What do you know about jurda parem?”
Nina shrugged. “There are rumours, but they sound like nonsense to me.” With the exception of the Council of Tides, the few Grisha working in Ketterdam all knew each other and exchanged information readily. Most were on the run from something, eager to avoid drawing the attention of slavers or interest from the Ravkan government.
“They aren’t just rumours.”
“Squallers flying? Tidemakers turning to mist?”
“Fabrikators making gold from lead.” He reached into his pocket and tossed the lump of yellow to her. “It’s real.”
“Fabrikators make textiles. They fuss around with metals and fabrics. They can’t turn one thing into another.” She held the lump up to the light. “You could have got this anywhere,” she said, just as he had argued to Van Eck a few hours earlier.
Without being invited, Kaz sat down on the plush settee and stretched out his bad leg. “Jurda parem is real, Nina, and if you’re still the good little Grisha soldier I think you are, you’ll want to hear what it does to people like you.”
She turned the lump of gold over her in her hands, then wrapped her dressing gown more tightly around her and curled up at the end of the settee. Again, Kaz marvelled at the transformation. In these rooms, she played the part her clients wanted to see – the powerful Grisha, serene in her knowledge. But sitting there with her brow furrowed and her feet tucked under her, she looked like what she truly was: a girl of seventeen, raised in the sheltered luxury of the Little Palace, far from home and barely getting by every day.
“Tell me,” she said.
Kaz talked. He held back on the specifics of Van Eck’s proposal, but he told her about Bo Yul-Bayur, jurda parem, and the addictive
properties of the drug, placing particular emphasis on the recent theft of Ravkan military documents.
“If this is all true, then Bo Yul-Bayur needs to be eliminated.” “That is not the job, Nina.”
“This isn’t about money, Kaz.”
It was always about money. But Kaz knew a different kind of pressure was required. Nina loved her country and loved her people. She still believed in the future of Ravka and in the Second Army, the Grisha military elite that had nearly disintegrated during the civil war. Nina’s friends back in Ravka believed she was dead, a victim of Fjerdan witchhunters, and for now, she wanted it to stay that way. But Kaz knew she hoped to return one day.
“Nina, we’re going to retrieve Bo Yul-Bayur, and I need a Corporalnik to do it. I want you on my crew.”
“Wherever he’s hiding out, once you find him, letting him live would be the most outrageous kind of irresponsibility. My answer is no.”
“He isn’t hiding out. The Fjerdans have him at the Ice Court.” Nina paused. “Then he’s as good as dead.”
“The Merchant Council doesn’t think so. They wouldn’t be going to this trouble or offering up this kind of reward if they thought he’d been neutralised. Van Eck was worried. I could see it.”
“The mercher you spoke to?”
“Yes. He claims their intelligence is good. If it’s not, well, I’ll take the hit. But if Bo Yul-Bayur is alive, someone is going to try to break him out of the Ice Court. Why shouldn’t it be us?”
“The Ice Court,” Nina repeated, and Kaz knew she’d begun to put the pieces together. “You don’t just need a Corporalnik, do you?”
“No. I need someone who knows the Court inside and out.”
She leaped to her feet and began pacing, hands on hips, dressing gown flapping. “You’re a little skiv, you know that? How many times have I come to you, begging you to help Matthias? And now that you want something …”
“Per Haskell isn’t running a charity.”
“Don’t put this on the old man,” she snapped. “If you’d wanted to help me, you know you could have.”
“And why would I do that?”
She whirled on him. “Because … because …”
“When have I ever done something for nothing, Nina?”
She opened her mouth, closed it again.
“Do you know how many favours I would have had to call in? How many bribes I’d have had to pay out to get Matthias Helvar out of prison? The price was too high.”
“And now?” she managed, her eyes still blazing anger. “Now, Helvar’s freedom is worth something.”
He held up a hand to cut her off. “Worth something to me.”
Nina pressed her fingers to her temples. “Even if you could get to him, Matthias would never agree to help you.”
“It’s just a question of leverage, Nina.” “You don’t know him.”
“Don’t I? He’s a person like any other, driven by greed and pride and pain. You should understand that better than anyone.”
“Helvar is driven by honour and only honour. You can’t bribe or bully that.”
“That may have been true once, Nina, but it’s been a very long year.
Helvar is much changed.”
“You’ve seen him?” Her green eyes were wide, eager. There, thought Kaz, the Barrel hasn’t beaten the hope out of you yet.
Nina took a deep, shuddering breath. “He wants his revenge, Kaz.” “That’s what he wants, not what he needs,” said Kaz. “Leverage is all
about knowing the difference.”